America’s Philippines Blunder

posted by
on September 14, 2016

America’s Philippines Blunder
Failing U.S. trade policy exacerbates Manila’s doubts of Washington’s security promises.

By GREG RUSHFORD
July 28, 2016 12:46 p.m. ET

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday discussed the “full range” of economic and security issues with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ newly elected president. The visit comes in the wake of The Hague’s July 12 ruling that Chinese actions in the South China Sea violate Philippine rights.

Mr. Kerry’s diplomatic mission was to assure Mr. Duterte that Manila can count on Washington’s mutual-defense promises. But there are also Mr. Duterte’s doubts that the U.S. can support the Philippine trade and economy.

When Mr. Duterte was sworn in to office on June 30, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman announced a new trade policy that upends important economic growth plans in the Philippines. It threatens to wipe out an estimated $100 million annual boost to Philippine exports of travel goods such as luxury handbags, wallets and backpacks. It also complicates Philippine investment aspirations to create some 75,000 travel-goods-related jobs in the next five years.

At first glance, Mr. Froman’s announcement gives no hint of the economic controversy it has sparked. He says that President Obama wants to make “a powerful contribution to lifting people out of poverty and supporting growth in some of the poorest countries in the world, while also reducing costs to American consumers and businesses.” The policy benefits 43 least-developed beneficiary countries, such as Cambodia and Haiti, and 38 African nations. Pursuant to the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, these countries will no longer have to pay stiff tariffs of up to 20% on handbags, wallets and other travel goods exported to the U.S.
The U.S. decision to give preferential treatment to the industry’s small players, while blindsiding the most competitive producers, is perplexing. Cambodia, for instance, holds a modest 0.4% of the U.S. market, producing mostly backpacks. Africa’s total travel-goods exports to the U.S. amount to roughly one hundredth of one percent market share. As a result, the policy gives just two countries—China and Vietnam—a combined 90% share of the $5 billion U.S. travel-goods market.
It is unlikely that preferential treatment will prompt least-developed countries to boost their exports. Even with 15 years of duty-free access to U.S. clothing markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, 40 African countries combined to export less than 1%, or $1 billion, of garments each year to the U.S. The Philippines alone exceeds Africa in clothing exports by more than $100 million.

Diplomats from other countries and industry giants in the U.S., such as Coach, Columbia Sportswear and Kate Spade, have written to Mr. Froman asking for an explanation. On Wednesday 14 members of U.S. Congress, including 10 from the powerful Ways and Means Committee that has jurisdiction over trade, also issued a strong letter to the U.S. trade chief. But Mr. Froman has yet to offer any economic rationale for the decision, nor is there any evidence on the public record to support it.

Developing countries with larger market shares of the travel-goods industry, such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, must now reconsider their plans to expand their investments. Major U.S. players such as Coach and Michael Kors, which looked to U.S. trade officials to provide financial incentives to shift production away from China, will now put those investment plans on hold. China is thus poised to keep its 85% share of the U.S. travel-goods market.

Vietnam, as a communist country, is not eligible for the GSP preferences. But in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the U.S. agreed to give the Vietnamese—who now hold a 5% market share—the same duty-free treatment withheld from GSP-eligible countries. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif thought he had received assurances directly from President Obama last year that U.S. trade officials understood the “importance” of increasing enhanced market access for Pakistan’s GSP-covered exports. Diplomats I have spoken to chafe at the unfairness.

Viewed through the Philippine lens, the failure to connect economic cooperation with the security aspect of Obama’s pivot to Asia is glaring. Cambodia, apparently thanks to financial inducements from Beijing, has been the spoiler whenever the Philippines has sought solidarity from its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in standing up to China in the South China Sea.

Asked repeatedly for his side of the story, Mr. Froman asserted through a spokesman that “travel goods are a product particularly well-suited to be produced in least-developed countries.” He declined to explain further.

While the broader security relationship will survive, it is worth noting that in international economic diplomacy, like in personal relationships, unnecessary smaller slights erode trust. With the Chinese watching on the sidelines and eager to buy their way out of their South China Sea mess, this is not a wise time to rub the volatile new Philippine leader the wrong way.

Mr. Rushford edits an online journal that specializes in international economic diplomacy.